Before I visited the Penland School in August 2000, I received an e-mail from Maurine Littleton (from whom I purchased Harvey Littleton's work Blue / Yellow Vertical Arc in 1999), asking me if I had ever had the chance to blow glass before. I immediately replied and said, "No, but I'd love to!"

When I arrived at the Penland School, Maurine explained to me why she had asked me that question... she was arranging for me to try blowing glass at the studio of her brother John Littleton and his wife Kate Vogel, who are very well-known collaborative studio glass artists (Bag Explosion), and who just happened to live not far from the school. So, on the morning of August 12th, I got my first chance to blow glass.

The first thing I learned: Blowing glass is HARD. The folks you see doing it on television have been doing it for a LONG time, which is why they make it look effortless. Glass blowing is an art that requires a great deal of stamina, coordination, and (especially) tolerance to heat... I almost burned myself twice, not from touching the molten glass itself, but from just getting too close to it.

How this work was created (and a brief explanation of glassblowing in general):

  • First, John and I selected the color that I would be using... in this case, we chose a nice shade of blue. We poured some glass frit (small pieces of broken glass) onto a metal plate called a marver. Preparing anything you can before you start is essential.
  • John showed me how to create a gather of glass on a pipe by dipping it into the glass furnace. Molten glass is DAMN hot, and you kind of have to get over the furnace when gathering, so needless to say this was quite an experience. Once a small gather was on the pipe, I took it to the marver and rolled it into a cylindrical shape... the reason for this was to increase the surface area for the next gather to adhere to.
  • I added another gather to the pipe so that there would be some glass to work with... since I was new at this (and still am!), I made the error of dipping the pipe too far down in the furnace. This is called "diving for glass"... it's not a big problem, but glass that isn't off the end of the pipe can't be detached from the pipe later on (it's wasted, basically).
  • We took care of that problem somewhat by using carved wooden blocks, doused in water to keep them from igniting, and a tong-like tool called a jack (or jacks) to shape and manipulate the molten glass, pulling more of it off the end of the pipe.
  • Adding color is easy... you just roll the molten glass through the frit on the marver, picking it up into the gather. To get the colored glass to merge completely with the gather, the gather has to go into the glory hole, a gas-powered oven which reheats the glass.
  • I added another gather of clear glass to the work, so that the color wouldn't be so close to the surface.
  • I added bubbles to the work by punching into the molten glass with a plier-like implement, which can also be used to pull the glass into different shapes. The punched-in sections turn into bubbles when the glass fills in, or when you add another gather to the work (molten glass is viscous and flows kind of like cold molasses, except it'll burn the heck out of you if you're not careful!).
  • Finally, John helped me to use the jacks to carve a "neck" at the end of the pipe... dipping the jacks in water and then carving at the glass forced it to cool quickly, so that I could tap the pipe and make the work fall off. John caught it in his gloved hands and put it in the annealing oven right away... if glass doesn't cool down slowly, it cools in layers and shatters within each layer.
Oh, and did I mention that you have to keep the pipe rotating all of the time, so that the glass doesn't flow off onto the floor? Or that you have to go back to the glory hole anytime the glass cools down too much? This is the challenge of glassblowing... managing the molten glass and trying to make it do what you want it to do.

Anyway, the result of all of that work is the paperweight you see here... not terribly impressive, but I like the colors and the effect of the bubbles within the work. Not too shabby for a first try, I think! I'm very glad to have had the chance to create this work of art.

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